The diverse Australian landscape offers a wealth of opportunities for the mystery and thriller writer. Beyond the cosmopolitan cities it’s a harsh, unforgiving country, and there’s peril at every turn for those who are unprepared, desperate or unaware. There’s a vast maze of tinder-dry bush land that gives way to parched red desert where the sand scorches, the sun beats down relentlessly, and there’s next to no shade. On remote coastal beaches, the ocean’s hidden currents tug humans far away from shore, to offer them as sacrifices to circling creatures from the deep.

Some of our finest Australian writers have used these stark surroundings to their advantage, crafting mysteries where the looming menace of the harsh natural environment adds a deep layer of intensity to the stories. Here are my picks for ten of the best brooding mysteries and thrillers set in isolated or small-town regions of Australia.

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

Why not begin with a classic! This chilling story about the disappearance of schoolgirls while on an outback picnic pushed all my buttons as a teenager and still sends a shiver down my spine. When I visited the place a few years ago I could just see those girls slipping around the corners and through the cracks of rock, never to be seen again.

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

It’s difficult to know which Harper story to pick, as the searing heat of The Dry still resonates with me a few years after reading her debut novel, and Force of Nature is about a group of city-dwellers getting lost in the outback on a team-bonding activity. However, I think her latest, The Lost Man, with a body found huddled on a gravestone in the middle of the desert, and a tense and troubled family living on a remote station in the outback, might just be my favourite of the three.

Crimson Lake by Candice Fox

Set in the crocodile-infested waters of far north of Australia, this story sizzles with atmosphere. Embattled Ted Conkaffey has gone there to hide from rumours he was involved in the disappearance of a teenage girl. However, when he becomes embroiled in the case of a missing author, he realizes there are those in the small town who want him gone, whatever it takes.

55 by James Delargy

This one has a gripping concept: two men run into a police station with exactly the same story, each claiming the other one has tried to kill them, and no one knows who to believe. It develops into a fine outback thriller with a high-stakes chase through remote red-dust landscapes, horrifying discoveries, and a killer determined to strike again in the worst way imaginable.

Past the Shallows by Favel Parrett

‘Out past the shallows, past the sandy-bottomed bay, comes the dark water – black and cold and roaring.’ With its elegiac feel, this is the story of two teenage boys living with their brutal father, and working with him on his fishing boat. It’s a much quieter mystery than others on this list, and Parrett’s pared-back prose renders this sorrowful tale of broken people into something heart-achingly tender and raw, as truths and secrets are slowly revealed.

Rogue by Amanda Betts

This Young Adult book is the second in a dystopian duology by the Western Australian author of award-winning novel-turned-TV-series Zac and Mia. Its futuristic setting and tone makes it a little different to the other mysteries here, as beekeeper Hayley desperately searches to uncover what’s happened to the boy she loves, but much of the book comprises Betts’s stunning depictions of the futuristic Tasmanian outback, through which Hayley must travel on foot, and this book has the best, most moving ending I’ve read this year. I’d recommend reading Hive first to get a thorough introduction to the central character Hayley’s unusual predicament.

Dead Heat by Bronwyn Parry

If you like a little romance with your suspense then Dead Heat serves it up in spades, alongside organized crime, police corruption, and murder, all of which begins when Detective Jo Lockwood discovers a body at a remote picnic ground. Lockwood is not your typical romantic heroine, thriving in solitary life in the outback, but she’s drawn to the city detective assigned to the case. I was lucky enough to work on the editing process of this book eight years ago, and I’ve never forgotten the brooding atmosphere and the precise descriptions of outback towns and locations that Parry describes so well.

Bitter Wash Road by Garry Disher

Hirsch is a whistleblower cop, no longer trusted by his peers, sent to police a small town that doesn’t want him. But when the deaths of two women – one a hit-and-run, and the other a suicide – begin to look increasingly suspicious, Hirsch is prepared to take on all-comers to uncover the truth. Disher’s evocative language, great ear for dialogue and precise descriptions of small-town life all add layers of authenticity to this great Aussie outback crime story.

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

A haunting book with some of the most beautiful prose you will ever read, I haven’t revisited this story for a number of years but can still vividly picture Jasper Jones knocking on Charlie Bucktin’s window at night and leading him to his terrible discovery in the nearby bushland. The small-town claustrophobia and suspicion in this Western Australian-based book is perfectly drawn.

Catching Teller Crow by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina

I highly recommend this wonderful novel, which won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in Australia in 2009. As soon as we meet Beth Teller, we understand that she died suddenly a few months prior to the start of the story, but her spirit has lingered to help her father through his grief, and they still communicate with each other. As Beth’s father begins to investigate an arson attack in a children’s home, and the subsequent disappearance of a number of people, they meet Isobel Catching, and the story she tells them in verse begins to reveal the answers they’re looking for. This isn’t just an Australian small-town mystery, but creative narrative interplay at its finest, with historical and indigenous themes interwoven throughout the story, and plenty of pace and intrigue.

Sara Foster was born and raised in England, and moved to Australia in 2004. Her new thriller, You Don’t Know Mewill release in the United States, from Blackstone Publishing, in March 2020. Foster is the author of five other novels: Come Back to MeBeneath the ShadowsShallow BreathAll That Is Lost between Us, and The Hidden Hours. She lives near Perth, Western Australia, with her husband and two young daughters, and is a doctoral candidate with Curtin University.

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